MVC approves Middle Line affordable housing layout
Conceding that Chilmark's Middle Line affordable housing project might not be perfect but it's a good start, the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted 11-1 on June 14 to approve the initial subdivision plan, with conditions.
While several of the commissioners said they would have preferred a different location for the housing project, namely somewhere closer to Chilmark's town center, they concurred the concept of "smart growth" did not really match the town's rural nature. They agreed the need for affordable housing outweighed any of the project's detriments.
"The maintenance of natural land is priceless, and the maintenance of community is priceless," said MVC chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark. "The town has made a decision they want to take this beautiful piece of land and put affordable housing on it, as they define it. It's the best they can do, I think, to balance interests that are priceless."
The affordable housing project, reviewed as a development of regional impact (DRI), includes plans for a nine-building, 12-unit complex of six residential home site and six rental units on 21 acres of land on Middle Line Road. The town will retain ownership of the land with long-term ground lease agreements with the homeowners and renters.
The MVC's land use planning committee (LUPC), which usually recommends approval or rejection of development of regional impact projects, offered no clue last week as to how the project might fare. At the LUPC's post-hearing review on June 11, the committee members deadlocked 3-3, with Mr. Sederholm, the acting chairman, abstaining.
Edgartown commissioner Jim Athearn, a farmer and owner of Morning Glory Farm, voted against recommending the project's approval at the LUPC meeting. At last Thursday's MVC meeting, he cast the only dissenting vote after making an impassioned speech against the affordable housing plan based on its location and his belief that the land should be preserved as undeveloped.
Mr. Athearn said he thought the Chilmark selectmen were following a red herring by trying to find a piece of land to build affordable housing that they didn't need to build in the first place.
"I would say this attitude I'm talking about, looking for land for affordable housing, is following the previous American principle that it is okay to consume land for immediate purposes, because land is infinite, because we can always move on to new ground," Mr. Athearn said. "This is the principle that killed the buffalo, put industrial development on farmland, and has built over 6,000 houses on Martha's Vineyard in our generation, in only 25 years."
The Island can no longer afford to view its land resources as infinite, Mr. Athearn warned. "This is about the wildest spot I can think of on Martha's Vineyard," he said. "If we develop that parcel now, it just weakens the whole structure of the Island. I think that's a key parcel to keeping Chilmark rural."
The Chilmark selectmen had explained during the MVC's public hearing on the project that they could not find another suitable location. Commission member Andrew Woodruff said he believed the town representatives, as did several of the commissioners who supported the site selection.
West Tisbury commissioner Linda Sibley said that while she agreed with many of Mr. Athearn's arguments, high housing costs in Chilmark are particularly acute. "Chilmark will become a place where ordinary, year-round Islanders won't be able to live," Ms. Sibley said. She added that she sees the affordable housing project as an attempt on the part of Chilmark to maintain its character, although at the expense of its own land. "I think it's the only available alternative at this time to meet this important goal," she said.
With no extensive downtown in Chilmark, Ms. Sibley added, the notion of smart growth, building close to a town's center, doesn't fit.
Mr. Athearn countered, "The concept of smart growth is to locate any development that's built next to other development."
"If you could buy that land," Ms. Sibley added.
"There's always eminent domain," Mr. Athearn suggested.
Mr. Sederholm, an attorney, reminded him that can be an expensive legal avenue to pursue.
After expressing strong opposition to the Middle Line project and voting at the LUPC meeting against recommending its approval, Tisbury commissioner Ned Orleans surprised many of his colleagues by voting to approve the project at the June 14 meeting.
Mr. Orleans said he had changed his opinion after hearing from several people after the LUPC meeting and listening to further discussion.
"I've come to two conclusions - one is I was using this application and this situation to try to make a bigger point, and I decided that's not fair to the town of Chilmark," Mr. Orleans said, adding that the second one was realizing the MVC could not stop the world while trying to solve a problem.
However, he said, it was time for the MVC to be proactive and play a leadership role, rather than reacting to applications one at a time. Mr. Orleans champions the approach of "integrated affordable housing," building on vacant lots in already established neighborhoods.
He made a motion, approved by the commissioners, to ask the Island Plan steering committee to study the idea and to come up with options to fit the different needs of Island towns.
Mr. Orleans also expressed concerns that children who will live in the Middle Line community will face the stigma of coming from a "project," similar to children who live in large publicly supplied city housing.
In discussing the Middle Line project's benefits and detriments and weighing the value of community as a tradeoff for woodlands, Oak Bluffs commissioner Mimi Davisson said she wondered "how this little enclave in the woods is going to contribute to the community." She suggested perhaps "Chilmarkians" could provide an answer.
"I need to understand how 12 affordable [houses] - a little ghetto, really - is going to contribute to the sense of community in Chilmark," Ms. Davisson said.
A few audience members audibly gasped. Attempting to defuse the situation inspired by Ms. Davisson's remark, Mr. Sederholm said he thought she might have been wrong to use the word "ghetto," and shifted the focus to answering her question.
"Chilmark has a lot of people who are hanging on by their fingernails - firemen, EMTs, teachers, people who work in town hall," Mr. Sederholm told her. "If anything, this project would add to the sense of community. You'll have people committed to the town living together in this development."
While several of the commissioners said they agreed with some of Mr. Athearn's arguments, they disputed others as impractical during the course of their two-hour discussion. Mr. Athearn's suggested strategies for creating affordable housing in the future, including Land Bank purchases and family trusts, prompted Chilmark commissioner Chris Murphy to comment, "The problem is, how do you get from pie-in-the-sky to practical, day-to-day stuff?"
If the MVC denied the project, Mr. Murphy pointed out, the entire 21 acres could end up being developed to the maximum, with large homes, guesthouses, and accessory structures. He commended Chilmark for coming up with a plan that preserves 70 to 80 percent of the site's open space.
"We need to say, how can we move forward the interests of our community? I think it's a good plan, and I can live with it," Mr. Murphy said.
The Middle Line project was somewhat unusual in that the DRI application came to the MVC as a Form B subdivision plan, because details such as house sites, septic systems, road access and improvements, cut zones, landscaping and screening, and fire safety issues have not been finalized.
Next, the Form B plan goes back to the Chilmark planning board for approval. Once approved by the planning board, the town's project committee will firm up the affordable housing plan's details in a Form C subdivision plan, which will be submitted to the planning board and return to the MVC for review.
The commissioners' approval last week of the Form B plan was contingent on several conditions that must be met when the plan is finalized later and comes back to them for approval as a Form C subdivision plan.
"We're very appreciative that the commission gave us such a big endorsement, and we're ready to move ahead in the next step in the planning process," said Chilmark selectman and project committee member Warren Doty this week.
The commissioners also voted to waive the $1,700 DRI project review fee, in keeping with the MVC's policy for municipalities.